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Healthy Habits

Much of the real business of government doesn’t take place in Parliament at all. In fact, it all happens in the Red Lion pub, just round the corner from the MPs offices in Portcullis House and if its opinions you want, then you’ll find a noisy, smoke-filled bar full of them any evening after six.

I can’t say that it’s been a great month for government, electronic government that is. Firstly, the NHS e-mail and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) story I have been telling you about, has been picked-up by many different kinds of publications and agencies, encouraging well-informed people to ask some very awkward questions about public sector IT projects. In response to my column on Monday, The British Computer Society (BCS) sent me a document of their own, entitled ‘Radical Steps in Health Informatics’, which states “Unless concerted action is taken, the widely welcomed new strategies for healthcare IT are at risk”.

All this of course, in the same month that the National Audit Office (NAO) documented how “A catalogue of management failures exposed the government’s Individual Learning Accounts (ILA) scheme to massive defrauding of taxpayers money on a multi-million pound scale”, prompting the DfES to rapidly issue a statement to the effect that it had ended its joint venture with Capita to develop a successor to the failed ILA scheme.

Finally, the icing on the cake, was a report that my redoubtable friend, e-Envoy, Andrew Pinder, a man with one of the country’s most unenviable jobs after the Northern Ireland Office, had allegedly told delegates at a conference, that the Prime Minister’s 2005 target of achieving 100% joined up government, 581 different services, was unreachable. It’s possible that most readers no longer believe in the tooth fairy and had guessed as much already but honest Andrew apparently departed from his script and before he could be bought back ‘on-message’, told his audience, “That we have no chance of making it. It’s like an albatross around my neck”. One PR wag has remarked that the e-Envoy really meant CW360 and not the Prime Minister’s 2005 target, which does of course explain everything and is as good an excuse as any to offer No10 for a momentary lapse of spin.

One comment that I did take away from the pub, one which I pondered as I walked past Big Ben, was that government means well but manages badly. There are, I’m told, too many big ‘Blue Sky’ projects taking place both here and in Europe and we really need to ask whether introducing expensive technology is really an exercise in concealing poor management and bad public sector business processes?

I really don’t know what the answer is but I do believe, from the conversation in the pub that we need to find a more effective way of involving groups of smaller highly specialized companies in the public sector procurement process and cease relying almost exclusively on an unholy trinity of giants for the delivery and very often failure of the taxpayers IT solutions. Go ask the blokes in the pub. They’ll tell you the same.

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